A Bee story Jan. 18 on 93-year-old George Heimbuch, a World War II prisoner of war who survived a horrible imprisonment and learned the power of forgiveness, led to a reunion that defies the odds.
Jack Schwartz, 99, of Hanford, read the story and felt dumbfounded. He too was a POW at the same same Kawasaki 2B camp near Toyko as Heimbuch. They were there at the same time, but they never met each other in camp.
Now — 70 years later — they live in the central San Joaquin Valley about 50 miles apart.
Schwartz put down The Bee and called Vern Schmidt, commander of American Ex-Prisoners of War Fresno chapter #1, where he is a member.
The Fresno chapter is part of the American Ex-Prisoners of War national organization, chartered by Congress in 1982, and holds monthly lunch meetings. As veterans have aged and died, the Fresno chapter membership has dropped from more than 50 to about 20. Many served in World War II, when there were about 130,000 POWs.
“I’ve got to meet him,” Schwartz told Schmidt, who also felt astonished by the whereabouts of Heimbuch, who lives in Clovis.
“George has lived here and somehow never knew about our organization,” Schmidt says. “We found one of our own.”
The reunion happened at the Fresno chapter meeting Jan. 21 at Brooks Ranch Restaurant in Fresno.
Heimbuch and Schwartz hugged each other, then sat across the table from each other.
“They talked up a storm,” Schmidt says.
The meetings normally follow an agenda, including news updates from the Veterans Administration. Schmidt scrapped the agenda.
“When these two guys showed up, the meeting disappeared,” he says. “We turned it over to these fellows. We brought the microphone down and let them start talking.”
They shared emotional memories of the beatings and lack of food and medical care in prison.
Schwartz was a naval officer captured on Guam on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Heimbuch, at age 19, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was sent to the Philippines as a private-first class. He was captured on May 10, 1942.
Both were sent on “hell ships” to Kawasaki 2B camp in Japan. Schwartz spent 3 3/4 years as a POW; Heimbuch was imprisoned for 3 1/2 years.
But they never met.
“Isn’t that crazy that you could be a couple doors down and to not know each other?” says Heimbuch’s daughter Janet Davis, who also attended the reunion.
Heimbuch explained he worked all day, came back to the camp and got to know only the others in his barracks.
Heimbuch enjoyed meeting Schwartz.
“Pretty cool,” says Heimbuch, adding he and Schwartz had different experiences in the camp. “I’m glad I met him.”
Schwartz, who lives in a retirement home and uses a walker, feels the same way.
“It was sort of a thrill, really, after all these years,” says Schwartz, who will be 100 on April 28. “Lucky to be alive.”